Presidential salaries are paid for with state dollars, and the hikes are problematic for David Knowlton, president of the Utah Valley University chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Utah's other public higher education employees got a 1 percent raise this year.
"Turning higher education into an administrative structure on the model of business corporations ... is dangerous," he wrote in an e-mail, one that "may well defeat learning and scholarship."
For University of Utah student Francisco Cardenas, who is taking on extra work to pay for another tuition increase this year, the raises are hard to understand.
"Why are we getting charged more money as students to pay for school when you have university presidents getting a pay increase?" he asked. "They already have money; they don't have to worry about it. We're trying to get an education, find a better job and yet we have to pay a lot for it."
The plan, adopted Friday by the Regents, still requires Buhler's final approval based on positive presidential job reviews. But it would give him and a presidential compensation committee discretion to OK additional annual raises until the salaries are at a median calculated by his staff and keep them there as pay changes at comparable schools. The first step would up the chiefs' pay to 15 percent below the median.
"The goal is to bring it to the median and the median changes every year," Buhler said. "The whole point of this is to have a system that's market-driven."
The changes would give the largest percentage raise to UVU President Matthew Holland, who stands to make an additional $46,365 a year in base salary for a total of about $241,000 before benefits.
"We're talking about medians, we're not talking about Ivy League," said UVU spokesman Chris Taylor, adding that it's also important to bring up faculty salaries. "We're not just trying to get the presidents to the median ... we're making an effort to get faculty and staff there as well."
Also set for a substantial increase is Utah State University President Stan Albrecht, whose 14 percent hike would bring him to almost $326,000.
Dixie State University President Stephen Nadauld would get a 20 percent bump to just over $193,000 a year.
"The challenge is that these are pretty big, complex institutions," he said. "If you don't get people who have the ability to manage those ... you really end up with some problems."
Pay for the yet-to-be-chosen new president of Southern Utah University would jump 10 percent to $215,333.
Outgoing SUU President Michael Benson doubled his salary to $400,000 by taking the job as president of Eastern Kentucky University earlier this year; the two most recent past presidents of the University of Utah are also both making substantially more as college presidents in Washington and Florida for Buhler, examples of why Utah needs to pay more.
"It's pretty conservative," he said, "to say we want to be at the median in four years."
This isn't the first time higher education bosses in Utah have tried to boost presidential salaries. In 2011, the regents approved raises of up to 12.5 percent, but backed off at the urging of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. Then-Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said the hikes for the presidents, sent the "wrong message." Many of them are the highest-paid employees at their institutions and have other fringe benefits such as the use of presidential residences and car allowances.
At that time, higher education employees hadn't gotten a raise since 2008.
Herbert could not be reached Monday for comment on the latest plan.
The Regents approved a policy change Friday expressing support for bringing presidents to the median, but without any specific salary numbers. The vote was unanimous and came with no public discussion about the changes. The salary numbers for next year were obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune after the vote was taken.
The Regents, Buhler said, "didn't vote to do it but voted to allow it to be done."
The raises set to take effect this summer don't appear to be the only ones coming after Friday's vote. Most presidents still have another $30,000 to $60,000 to go before they're at the median calculated by the Utah System of Higher Education. Buhler said his goal is to bring them to that middle mark within four years, depending on performance and the economy.
Those median salaries were calculated by comparing Utah schools to others of similar size and mission, Buhler said. The comparison schools were chosen by tapping data from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and suggestions by individual schools.
At UVU, for example, the comparable schools include Boise State University, Northern Kentucky University and California State University-Northridge.
When asked whether the hikes could result in an increase in tuition, which pays for approximately half the budget at public institutions, Buhler said the $157,000 the raises would cost is small compared to the $750 million in public money that goes to fund higher education every year.
"We're trying," he said, "to be careful, considered, conservative, prudent."
Proposed 2013-14 salaries for Utah college presidents
University of Utah • 2 percent increase to $358,850
Utah State University •14 percent increase to $325,774
Weber State University • 2 percent increase to $220,435
Southern Utah University • 10 percent increase to $215,333
Snow College • 1 percent increase to $153,831
Dixie State • 20 percent increase to $193,375
Utah Valley University • 24 percent increase to $241,295
Salt Lake Community College • 4 percent increase to $200,963
Source: Utah System of Higher Education